Home Video Hints: Watch Your Language!

The guy yelling “Cut!” usually has his own chair, gets to boss people around and generally is able to make other people believe he knows what he’s talking about. And this is for a good reason. He does. When was the last time you heard a director shout, “Aannnnd, Page Turn!”?

What is the difference between big-budget national productions and small-market local ads? Besides the quirky charm of local talent, one difference you’ll notice is that local ads often feature lots of graphic transitions, usually accompanied by whooooshing sound effects. Want to make more professional-looking videos? This article will help.

The Basics

A transition is simply a way to end one shot and start the next. The way you do this can lend powerful clues to the viewer about changes in time and location. The most basic, and most widely used are the cut and dissolve. Sounds simple enough. So why are there hundreds of other ways to make a transition? To help answer this question, we must take a brief look back in time.

Historic Transitions

Shortly after the Jurassic Era, when broadcast equipment manufacturers were competing to sell their latest electronic components to TV stations, a big selling point was how many shapes and movements there were to transition from one video source to another. These switchers cost many thousands of dollars and were quite complicated to use. These dinosaurs set a standard for marketing to techie-types: The more flashy ways to get from A to B, the better.

Spectacular transitions were a standard feature of expensive switchers and other dedicated broadcast hardware. Then desktop video editing systems began flooding the market. To make productions edited on these new lower-cost systems look like they had been created on equipment costing much more, early desktop marketers featured as many whiz-bang transitions as they could cram into a drop-down window. The viewing public has since been pelted with flips, wipes, tumbles, spins and even falling sheep by the unrestrained clicks of over-caffeinated video producers.

To Cut or not to Cut?

So, you’ve got 326 different transitions at your fingertips. Why use just the cut? The cut is by far the most commonly used transition. It is also the most natural way to edit your scenes together. Our minds recognize it as something we do more than ten thousand times a day: blink. This is important because just as we blink without being conscious of it, a cut does not call attention to itself, which is exactly what we hope to accomplish with good video editing.

Use a cut when you want to imply different perspectives of the same scene. Each shot will relate to the other in the same time and space. You are essentially simulating the use of multiple cameras. This is frequently referred to as “film-style” shooting and editing. By changing the angle of the camera to the subject and then cutting the related scenes together, it appears as if you used several cameras to capture a single action, dramatically increasing viewer interest.

You can also use the power of the cut to connect subjects in different places and times as if they were in the same place and time. Let’s say we have a wide shot of a man walking on a lonely dirt road. We cut to a close-up of his face as he looks over his shoulder as if he heard something rustle in the bushes. We can then cut to rustling bushes in our back yard. Cut back to the man as his pace quickens. Cut the now rustling bushes as they part and reveal the sinister eyes of your pet pooch. Cut to the man running – well, you get the picture. Exchange the dog with a hungry lion and you have a good example why you would want to only connect the actor with the lion with a series of cuts.


The Dissolve

The next most common transition is the dissolve. This is the simultaneous cross-fading of one scene into the next. Unlike the cut, the dissolve implies a change in time and/or space. If we were to slowly dissolve from a scene of someone watching a sunset over the ocean to a shot of the same person at the breakfast table, we would understand it was the next morning.

While a cut is invisible, the dissolve is an effect. Slow-motion scenes flow together better with dissolves than with cuts. Moving from a wide shot of a performing pianist to a close up of his hands with a dissolve greatly softens the transition, even though no change in time or space is necessarily implied.

What’s My Motivation?

Flips, stretches, tumbles and wipes don’t add interest; they call attention away from your subject and onto themselves. If you do decide to throw in a star-wipe, page-peel, tumble or any transition other than a cut or dissolve, I urge you to first think about why. Be honest with yourself: Will it do a better job than a cut or a dissolve in connecting your two scenes in time and space? Do you think it will add excitement or interest to your story? Will it support the message of your video or distract from it?

Flashy transitions can be integral to a production and can even be motivated by the video content itself. The sitcom Home Improvement is probably the best example of motivated transition effects. The show is about hardware and tools, so you might occasionally see an animated tractor drag one scene across another in a transition. While these are obviously not canned transitions, they are well-thought out transitions that weave scenes together not only by creatively playing with the video subject, but the storyline subject as well. Of course 98% of the rest of the transitions in the show are cuts, with these fancy effects only used to identify major shifts in the show.

In-Camera Transitions

If you want something different than the transitions that came with your new editing program, you can incorporate a popular, nearly invisible transition that will lend a film-style quality to your next production. Sometimes called a “body wipe,” this transition involves having a person walk close enough to the camera lens to fill the entire frame area with his body at just the moment the scene ends, then, start the next shot as the person walks away from the camera at a new location. This does require a little preplanning, but it will add a dramatic, professional touch.

Another in-camera technique involves throwing your subject completely out of focus at the end of your scene. The beginning of your next scene then starts at the same out of focus level, only to be brought back into focus when the action begins. During editing you can either cut the two together at maximum defocus, or further soften the transition by doing a quick dissolve between the two.

This is great for simulating going back in time, initiating dream sequences or providing the first-person perspective of the hazy morning after the office Christmas party.


The 90-9-1 Rule

This is simple. Use cuts 90% of the time, dissolves 9% of the time, and special transitions about 1% of the time. Of course, the type of video you are producing will bend this guideline, more or less. If you are editing a wedding video, a series of dissolves will nicely compress the standard series of events down to viewable length. On the other hand, if you are putting together a high-energy music video making edits on nearly every other beat, you might opt to use all cuts.

This rule is just a reminder to sparingly reach into your special transition goodie-bag. Your videos will not only look more professional, but this process will force you to think about your story, your shots and your pacing. Of course, if you are producing local car commercials, forget everything I’ve just said.

[Sidebar: What’s Your Motivation?]

Can you identify with some of these reasons for using the gee-whiz-bang transitions that came with your new editing software? If so, you’re using them for the wrong reasons!

  • The subject is boring
  • The video itself is uninteresting
  • You got bored
  • The client thinks it’s cool
  • The client will pay more for the final product
  • It was an attempt to look professional
  • The editing software was expensive and you want to get your money’s worth

[Sidebar: Sheep Wipes]

Okay, I’ll admit it: I once used a falling sheep transition that came with the Video Toaster editing system. And it was fun. But in my own defense, it was a marketing video for a client that trains and sells working sheep dogs. Even then it was a bit of a stretch.

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